I didn’t grow up in the ghetto or a trailer park or a particularly tough neighborhood. At the time that I lived there, my hometown was considered one of the better “bedroom communities” in the metropolitan area: an increasingly common landing field for white flight evacuees and – thanks to a small Baptist college in the center of town – an epicenter for white, middle-class Christian conservative education.
My own family moved there when I was in second grade, relocating from a neighborhood that today is well-know for crime, violence and drugs. While my own childhood was less than ideal for a great many reasons, it’s fair to say that I probably had it good compared to the challenges faced by the boys and girls who weren’t able to pick up and move across town. Not that they would have found it as easy even if they had the means to do so. More about that in a bit.
While I don’t know a whole lot about inner city life – and by that I mean the coded phrase that largely-white academics use to mean poor black neighborhoods; see also “urban” – I do know quite a bit about racism. And I don’t mean directed at me – I’ve experienced that, but as a middle class white guy it’s hardly a problem. I mean white racism, institutional and otherwise.
Shortly after we moved in, I barely remember being told that there had been a neighborhood meeting about whether a black family would be “allowed” to move into our neighborhood. (Irony: While they eventually moved in, the husband and wife were both upwardly mobile professionals who would move on to more affluent pastures in due time. The same couldn’t be said for most of the blue collar whites who were so frightened by the new, “scary” black family.)
School wasn’t much different: There was only a handful of black students, and while our classes and extracurricular activities like prom were “integrated” (it’s mind-boggling that I even have to point that out in the 21st century), white students and black students really didn’t socialize together. Those few who did cross the color line risked being rejected by many of those on both sides.
Growing up, a lot of things flew in my tiny little southern town that don’t today, like the “n-word.” When I say that, I mean that the epithet had a state of matter-of-fact common usage that (thankfully) I’ve not seen since. As a boy, I heard that word all the time, but as I got older and had more of a choice about who I associated with, I didn’t hear it as much. My teenage buddies were all nerds, bookworms and weirdos, and most of us did anything we could not to be a part of the local Good Ol’ Boy culture that rejected us, and by the time I was in college, anyone who used that word (or espoused openly racist values) was ostracized or did so at the risk of catching an ass-beating.
That didn’t mean that racism went away, though. It was still there. It still is. So is the n-word.”It’s just wearing a mask. Like a lot of white people (and maybe a few black people) I was a little skeptical when I heard Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman say that the word “thug” has become a more acceptable substitute for the n-word. Sherman’s observation followed in the wake of a barrage of criticism he received about some comments he made during a post-game interview with reporter Erin Andrews.
During the interview, Sherman warned another player to never talk about him again, because he (Sherman) is the best and that he’ll shut him up if he has to. Sure, it sounds a little threatening, especially if you’ve never been around fighters, athletes or other people who make their daily bread through physically challenging other people in one way or another, but if you have, then you’ll probably recognize it for what it is: Shit-talking, or to use a more socially acceptable substitute, “trash-talking”.
Athletes talk trash all the time. Some of them are great at it, and it’s just part of the culture of competition. Muhammad Ali was – in addition to being one of the greatest boxers of all time – one of the most talented trash-talkers to ever live. One of my favorites: “After the fight I’m gonna build myself a pretty home and use him as a bearskin rug. [Sonny] Liston even smells like a bear. I’m gonna give him to the local zoo after I whoop him.”
Sure, Sherman’s comments didn’t have that kind of wit (few could match Ali in his heyday), but threats and exaggerations aren’t exactly an unknown part of sports competition. It’s probably even part of your own life, unless you’ve never insulted or threatened someone in jest. (If so, then I applaud you. And kind of worry about you a little, too.) My buddies and I talk trash about each other all the time. Insulting each other is kind of an art form, and I don’t know too many guys who don’t engage in a little bit of this kind of barbed affection. It’s also a part of the martial arts community, and it’s not always respectful or friendly.
Good or bad, it’s just there.
One thing I’ve noticed is that people tend to get more upset about trash talk or otherwise unpleasant behavior when it comes from people from whom we consider it to be improper – especially minorities or women. They often have very specific words for those people. One of my favorite examples of this is UFC fighter Ronda Rousey. People lose their minds when she talks trash or engages in (admittedly) unsportsmanlike conduct, and they call her a “bitch,” “whore,” and “cunt.” I love Ronda Rousey. I admire her skill and enjoy her attitude. (I think that I’d also think twice about calling someone who can snap your arm in seconds a ‘bitch.’”) I also see that male fighters don’t get nearly as much grief for the same kinds of antics.
Rousey gets called a “bitch” or “whore” – gender specific insults loaded with moral judgment – when she acts out of line with how some people might think a woman should behave. Or more properly, when she acts how a man should behave. It’s a huge double standard. Right or wrong, calling a woman a “bitch” or “whore” doesn’t come with the same consequences as calling someone the n-word, so you’re probably more likely to hear a woman called a “bitch” than you are to hear another human being called the n-word.
Unless you’re living in some kind of Confederate South time capsule deep beneath the Earth, then the n-word is absolutely verboten. And with good reason. But still, we – and I mean the media and American culture as a whole – don’t want to give up on that word, so along comes other words that deep down we know means the same thing. Like “thug.”
“Thug” has an interesting history, linguistically speaking. It initially referred to the Thuggee, an organized group of assassins and thieves that operated in central India for about 500 years. In turn, “thug” is derived from the Hindi word for thief, “thag.” The word made its way back to Europe by way of British colonists, and it quickly became generalized to mean any kind of ruffian or criminal.
I had heard the word “thug” before I had ever heard of the thugees, and I suspect that many people can claim the same. It wasn’t used terribly much when I was growing up, though. I thought it sounded antiquated, like “ruffian” or “rapscallion.” It wasn’t until I was an adult that the word seemed to re-enter the common parlance, and I only heard it used in very specific circumstances, as I continue to today: in reference to young black men considered objectionable by the user.
Prior to Sherman’s observations, the first time that I really became aware of it was during the Trayvon Martin trial. The question of whether Martin was a “thug” became part of a public debate, without anyone really defining what “thug” meant in the first place. Walking mustache Geraldo Rivera (in)famously asserted that Martin had been wearing “thug wear” at the time he was shot, and suddenly people zeroed in on the hoodie – a common enough item in most people’s wardrobes. It was a distraction; an easy way out. Fewer asked Geraldo if he meant something else when he said that Martin “looked like” the “people” who had been supposedly ransacking Zimmerman’s neighborhood, although I have a feeling that many of us – black or white or otherwise – had a damned good guess.
Recently, the Omaha Police Officers Association posted a video of a cursing black toddler to its blog and decried it as part of “the thug cycle” while identifying the adults as the videos as “thugs” – as in “the thug that posted this video…”. The local media ran with the story, dubbing the child “the thug baby”, and in due course, the video went viral. Now “thug baby” has entered into the low-level pantheon of viral video fandom alongside that “Chocolate Rain” guy and “Keyboard Cat”. You can find plenty of videos of white children engaged in bad behavior, but there aren’t many famous ones that come with the label “thug.” The audience is expected to know what that means.
The public has accepted “thug” as a codeword, and if you doubt that, then try to remember how many other times you’ve heard public debates about whether a white kid was a “thug” or not. Even young white criminals aren’t “thugs” in the world of trial by public opinion. There is no “thug” test that we have to measure them by prior to sentencing in the court of our conscience.
As Jon Stewart pointed out, we’re not currently engaged in a national debate as to whether Justin Bieber is a thug, despite racking up an impressive list of felony charges. Meanwhile, Sherman – an honors college graduate with a clean record – catches hell for talking trash about another pro football player, something that he’s hardly alone in doing. Peyton Manning has had plenty of his own explosive on-field moments, but I can’t recall hearing a lot of debate about whether he is or isn’t a “thug.”
I think that Sheppard is on the money. For America, the word “thug” is a nudge and a wink that we’re all expected to understand mean something else. We’ve taken the n-word and put a mask on it. As long as we all agree not to peek under the mask, then it’s allowed to stay at the table of “polite” society and we can pretend that we’re better than the ignorant mouth-breathers who haven’t gotten the memo that their favorite word isn’t allowed at supper anymore.